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Basic Information

A shield is a defensive device, normally equipped on the subordinate arm and used to block and parry close combat attacks or to provide cover from ranged weapons. Most forms of shield are very much designed for active defence and require to be properly wielded for best effect - very few are merely passive barriers.

As well as defensive work, a shield could also be used as a bludgeoning weapon by a skilled user, either by hitting an opponent with the edge or by barging into him with the face. This could be aided by adding spikes to the face or edge of the shield, although how common this is will vary from culture to culture and is more common in fantasy than it seems to have been historically.

Shields vary wildly in size from small parrying devices barely larger than the wielder's fist to pavaises large enough to cover a man's whole body - materials of construction will then tend to vary according to the size. Some typical forms are:

Buckler: The smallest class of shield, ranging from the aforementioned fist sized objects up to about the size of a dining plate, either held in the hand or strapped to the forearm and used for active defence. Common amongst lightly equipped melee fighters and for issue to those whose primary weapon (such as a pike, polearm or bow) requires both hands free to wield. Usually made of metal. Buckler techniques could also be used with the metal boss of a larger, wooden shield once the woodwork had been destroyed.

Small Shield: A small, light shield, bigger than a buckler, but still covering very little of the wielder's body and requiring active blocking to be really effective. The medieval heater shields - flat topped with a pointed base - used extensively by knights in the early middle ages, are a good example of the class. Frequently made of wood, but could be metal. May be strapped to the arm, held in a hand grip or both.

Medium Shield: A substantial shield, frequently round, made either of metal covered wood (like the Greek Apis or Hoplon) or heavy wooden timber with a leather cover and metal rim and boss (like the Saxon and Nordic round shields, see viking shield for more information). More passive than the smaller, handier shields and frequently used in massed formations such as the shield wall or phalanx. Often fitted with a strap known as a guige to suspend the weight of the shield from the user's shoulder when not being actively wielded. Modern versions of this shield - usually made of lexan or some similar ballistic plastic - are used by police forces for riot control work, frequently issued to more mobile units such as snatch squads.

Large Shield: Capable of covering the majority of the user's body the large shield is as much a barrier to fight around as a blocking device, although given their size and frequent unwieldiness this can take considerable skill. Mostly made of timber with metal re-inforcings - at this size, metal shields become far too heavy. Examples would be the Roman scutum, Hellenistic theuros, Norman kite shield or Bantu ishilangu1. Modern versions, made of ballistic plastics like their smaller components are often used by riot police and heavier, bullet resistant versions made of metal or carbon-fibre used by police firearms units.

Tower Shield: This was a marginally portable shield, frequently worn on the back and typically intended to give passive protection from missile weapons - in melee combat the tower shield was just as likely to be a hinderance as an asset due to its size and mass. A common name for this sort of shield was the pavise. The most famous deployment of these was Genoese who issued them to crossbowmen as cover whilst reloading. The crossbowmen wore the shields on their backs and simply turned away from the enemy to reload, disappearing behind their shields. This equipment was quickly copied by other powers, and later issued to handgunners as well. Some later users fitted spikes to the shield bottom to allow it to be planted upright in the ground instead of worn. The shields were typically of wood with a metal rim and could be highly decorated, frequently with religious icons.

The next size up from the tower shield was a mantlet - a wheeled mobile barrier that qualifies as a siege engine rather than a shield. A modern version of this would be the wheeled shield.

Shields were normally painted to identify the user - either personally (with a coat of arms), with an employer's arms or even merely with appropriate colours. As noted above, some cultures even painted extensive iconography onto their shields.

Other customizations could include spikes and blades to improve the offensive capabilites of the shield.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • fRPGs like the idea of magical shields, frequently ones with a long history. Unfortunately, historical shields were frequently fairly short lived and required replacement after a battle or two … something most RPGs tend to forget.
  • Fantasy also likes the idea of the big metal shield - realistically almost unusable. The few examples that have been turned up are usually ceremonial or display pieces and/or accessories from a statue.
  • The Roman festival of the Salii, marking the start of the campaigning (and planting) season involved the procession of twelve bronze shields through the streets. One of these shields was supposedly that of their god of war and agriculture Mars.
  • Shields were paraded at the start of a tournament in an event sometimes known as a Passage of Arms - this was to display the coats of arms of would be competitors and allow the potential identification of any imposters or malefactors.
  • Many RPGs tend to undervalue the shield, defaulting it to a 5% or 10% reduction to hit percentage (Such as +1 or +2 AC in a d20 game). Shields could be so much more. Depending on your game, the era it is set in, and how realistic you desire your combat to be, you might want to house-rule the stats up a bit.
    • In the hands of a skilled user, shields can be used to: attack directly (the shield bash), to force the enemies weapon or shield aside to create an opening for your own attack, to control enemy movement and force them around the battlefield, to form a shield wall that's more effective than a single solitary shield. Having these are potent and attractive options (perhaps purchasable via a Feat or Edge) for the dedicated shield-using combat specialist might make for interesting gaming, regardless of whether or not you leave it as the default +5% for a green peasant who just picked up his first shield.
    • I've seen it estimated that a shield correctly used would intercept roughly 60% of incoming attacks (but I can't remember which book I read that in, nor do I know if they actually researched that number or just guessed… so take that with several grains of salt). A defense that effective could warp your game mechanics and make combats drag out, so it's not going to be a good match for every game. Again, the answer might be to start small and make better levels of defense be unlockable as the shield-bearer levels up.
    • If I were running a campaign where the PCs were vikings, for example, I'd probably try to figure out a way to make the viking shield the big deal that it was to the vikings. That way the mechanics would reinforce the flavor and theme. When I'm just running generic D&D (which already has hundreds of character and combat options) I tend not to worry about it so much.
    • A really high shield block rate could work well with a system that has particularly nasty critical hits. (Such as Warhammer Fantasy.) PCs tend to suffer worse under detailed crit systems than NPCs. Losing a finger is of negligible consequence to an NPC who was only going to be in one or two scenes, but the dexterity penalty a lost digit brings a PC is likely to apply to dozens of rolls across the rest of the campaign. If you make shields extra-effective in such a system, you'll be providing the PCs a way to play cautiously and smart. To keep battles from dragging out too much, you just make shields relatively rare for NPC combatants. Save them for bosses, final battles, and fights the PCs probably should have avoided.
      • Keep an eye out for mechanical ripple effects. If shields are much more effective under your new rules, has that made two-handed weapons no longer a viable option, and will that frustrate any of your players?
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